EMDR to Treat Underlying PTSD in Drug Addiction

EMDR to Treat Underlying PTSD in Drug Addiction

When a person experiences a traumatic event they often internalize the event and re-experience it. In effect, they are not only traumatized during the “activating” event, but every time something triggers a memory of the event. A traumatic event is an experience that causes physical, emotional, psychological distress, or harm. It is an event that is perceived and experienced as a threat to one’s safety or to the stability of one’s world.

The most well known cases of PTSD are seen in war veterans. Vietnam War vets who suffered from PTSD showed significant impairment in their ability to re-integrate into the “normal” (that is, non-combat) world. Many of these vets did not seek treatment, but even more disheartening is the fact that many probably could have been treated if effective programs had been available. Now with Iraq War veterans also showing significant signs of post-traumatic stress, we are poised to either end up with another generation of battle-rattled young men or to face the problem with the resources these war vets deserve.

PTSD is not only caused by war. Any significant traumatic event or a series of traumas over time can lead to symptoms of PTSD. Some common causes are:

  • Child or domestic abuse
  • Living in a war zone or extremely dangerous neighborhood
  • Sexual Assault
  • Violent Attack
  • Sudden death of a loved one
  • Witnessing a violent death such as a homicide

One of the most effective treatments was discovered incidentally by Francine Shapiro, PhD, in 1987. When Shapiro was hiking and became anxious and overwhelmed, she noticed that as she scanned the environment with her eyes, moving them back and forth, she began to relax. This led her to assume that eye movements had a desensitizing effect, and when she experimented with it clinically, she found that other people had the same response. It became apparent that eye movements alone weren’t comprehensive, so she added other treatment elements and developed Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing – known as EMDR.

Untreated trauma can be a significant source of psychic pain and emotional turmoil, which leads many of those suffering to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. If those people seek treatment for drug addiction, they are at high risk for relapse if they do not find a way to re-process and cope with the trauma.

One of the current practitioners of EMDR is Los Angeles-based psychotherapist Barbara Brawerman, Psy.D, MFT a Certified EMDR therapist and an EMDRIA-Approved EMDR Consultant who has trained in affect regulation skills training as well as somatic-based psychotherapies. Brawerman became interested in EMDR when she noticed that traditional talk therapies weren’t working for her complex clients who had multiple diagnoses, particularly those who also suffered from alcohol or drug addiction. She wanted to develop a more integrated approach that treated both the left and right hemispheres of the brain, which she found in EMDR.

Brawerman teamed up with Promises, a Malibu drug addiction treatment program, to develop a trauma recovery program that uses EMDR.

“Many people struggling with addiction have underlying traumas and use alcohol or drugs to withdraw and numb their memories; when the drugs and alcohol are taken away, they’re left with a sense of emotional overwhelm that is not alleviated through talk or cognitive therapies,” explains Brawerman.

Talk Therapy Doesn’t Always Work

Brawerman founds that talk therapy often kept patients stuck in the traumatic event, essentially reliving it and even intensifying the traumatic feelings.

“Eye movements and bilateral stimulation remind the patient that they are still in the present. They’re attending to the trauma in the past while being consistently reminded that they’re now in a safe environment in the present with a therapist they can trust,” she explains. “Trauma lives in the right hemisphere of the brain, so treating just the left hemisphere, such as with talk therapy, doesn’t work. EMDR connects the left and ride sides of the brain, allowing the person to look inward and get in touch with his or her innate ability to heal and self-soothe.”

Originally designed to treat traumatic memories, EMDR has been found to effectively treat PTSD, panic disorders, anxiety, and other psychological distress that may follow a distressing experience. Several studies report a 77-90% remission in after just five treatments in those patients who have experienced a single traumatic event.

Brawerman believes this type of intervention lessens the risk of relapse. “If there’s a particular incident or belief about self that has been haunting a patient, if I can help to desensitize and reprocess their experience into a more healthy perspective, then when they are discharged, they’re less likely to be triggered by that experience,” Brawerman says.

Brawerman says that with those addicted to drugs it is critical to review any traumatic incidents during the developmental and individuation processes, whether a patient has the ability to separate themselves from others and adaptively define a personal relationship with the outside world.

Promises clients who have experienced trauma or overwhelming emotion meet individually with Dr. Brawerman for EMDR or emotion regulation skills training, in addition to weekly group meetings, called affect regulation group. The primary goal of EMDR and somatic therapy is to help those who have made the decision to get treatment for drug addiction with the most effective therapies available so that they have fewer risk factors for relapse when they return home.

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